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Alan Geoffrey (Geoff) Serle (1922–1998)

by John Ritchie

As to time and place, Geoffrey Serle was born on 10 March 1922, almost within sight and sound of Glenferrie Oval, Hawthorn, son of Melbourne-born parents, Percival Serle (1871-1951), accountant and scholar, and his wife Dora Beatrice, née Hake (1875-1968), an artist. In the year of Serle's birth, Henry Lawson died and Melbourne University Press was founded. Schooled at Scotch College, Serle proceeded in 1941 to the University of Melbourne, where he read history. He suspended his studies and enlisted in the Melbourne University Regiment on 13 October 1941; he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 15 September 1942; during his thirty-two months service he was seriously wounded in action at Finschhafen, New Guinea. Discharged from the army on 7 June 1944, he resumed his undergraduate course, and numbered Max Crawford, Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Manning Clark among his mentors. Serle joined the Labour Club, helped to found the Victorian Fabian Society and co-edited (with Ken Gott) Melbourne University Magazine. After completing his B.A.(Hons) degree in 1946, he won a Rhodes Scholarship and entered University College, Oxford, where he graduated D.Phil, in 1950. He returned to the University of Melbourne, taught Australian history there and, from 1961, at Monash University, and edited (1955-63) Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand. On 12 January 1955 he married Jessie Macdonald, who became an art historian; they were to have a daughter, Oenone, and three sons, Donald, Jamie and Richard.

In a career that was as multifaceted as it was creative, Serle established his name as historian, biographer and editor. His first book of history, The Melbourne Scene, 1803-1956, co-edited with James Grant, was a collection of documents, published in 1957. It was followed by two general histories of the colony of Victoria, The Golden Age (1963) and The Rush to be Rich (1971). The former focused on the goldrushes of the 1850s, the latter on the boom of the 1880s. In 1973 he produced From Deserts the Prophets Come, a history of Australian literature, art, music, theatre, architecture and science. His biographies included John Monash (1982), which won four major awards, Percival Serle (1988), the most sensitive, self-revealing and elegant of all his works, Sir John Medley (1993) and Robin Boyd (1995). In addition to these full-scale studies, he also completed forty-nine entries for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Most of them are jewels. Varying in length from 500 to 6000 words, these articles cover subjects ranging from John Curtin to the Mclnnes brothers, Graham and Colin. Serle's 'brief lives' reveal the span of his interests and expertise, the humanity of his judgement, and the precision of his prose. In 1975 he and Bede Nairn were appointed joint general editors of the ADB. One came from a middle-class, Protestant and Melburnian background; the other, by upbringing, was working-class, Catholic and a Sydneysider. They made a marvellous team. Together, they produced volumes 7 to 10; after Bede's retirement, Geoff edited Volume 11 alone.

Serle also contributed a great deal to libraries, magazines, the arts and sport. In 1966, with Professor A. G. L. Shaw, he founded the Friends of the La Trobe Library to promote development of the library's research collections; he was, in turn, secretary, president and vice-president of the Friends, foundation editor of the La Trobe Library Journal, and vice-president (1989-94) of the council of the State Library of Victoria. Conscious of the merits of other repositories, he supported the National Library of Australia, the Australian War Memorial and the National Gallery of Australia. Serle's love of Australian literature, and his friendship with Clem Christesen and Stephen Murray-Smith, led him to be closely associated with Meanjin and Overland: he contributed to both magazines, edited Meanjin in 1957, and chaired its board and that of Overland. Absorbing 'high culture' all his life, he read prodigiously and developed a passion for the novel — in all its forms. He inherited an enduring love of painting, especially that of the Heidelberg School. For many years he belonged to the Buildings (Classification) Committee of the Victorian branch of the National Trust of Australia. In his youth Serle was an excellent hurdler and hockey-player, and a capable cricketer and Australian Rules footballer; in middle age he was an enthusiastic spectator at all these sports; even in his sixties he continued to play a wily game of tennis against members of the ADB staff, a number of whom were nearly a generation younger. He eventually acknowledged the merits of Rugby Union football, yet showed next to no interest in horse-racing.

A fellow of the Australian academies of the Humanities and of the Social Sciences, and of the Royal Victorian and Royal Australian Historical societies, Serle was appointed AO in 1986. He had been promoted to a readership in 1963, but neither sought nor accepted a chair. Incisive and insightful, pragmatic and down-to-earth, left-leaning in his political sympathies without being dogmatic, he was gentle in nature, thoughtful in temperament, egalitarian in outlook, exceptionally hard-working, and a loyal friend. He enjoyed a can of beer, a glass of wine, a cigarette and his pipe. In private life, he succeeded in the three things that matter most, as a son, a husband and a father. Family tradition traced his ancestry to the Conquest, and Norman elements could be discerned in his features, but his laconic voice and distinctive drawl were outward signs that he was 'unapologetically Australian'. When I sent him a letter from London in 1972 extolling the virtues of England, he sent a postcard in reply: on one side it had a painting by Tom Roberts, on the other he wrote, 'aut Australia, aut nihil'. Serle died on 27 April 1998 at Epworth Hospital, Richmond. The nation that he loved has lost one of its finest sons, one who left to family, friends and colleagues an abundant legacy. As the Reverend Dr Davis McCaughey said in his eulogy, Geoff took the 'fragments of a useable past' and wove them into 'the stuff of consciousness and conscience'. Through his understanding of our past, he has helped us to understand ourselves.

Original publication

View the list of ADB articles written by Alan Geoffrey (Geoff) Serle

Additional Resources

  • ASIO file, A6119, item 653 (National Archives of Australia)

Citation details

John Ritchie, 'Serle, Alan Geoffrey (Geoff) (1922–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

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